India’s China strategy is a concoction of reserved diplomacy, backed by a vocal army

The earlier practice of serving military chiefs confining themselves essentially to bread and butter defence and service issues and staying clear of issues with foreign policy sensitivities is being redefined

Kanwal Sibal October 28, 2021 14:54:37 IST
India’s China strategy is a concoction of reserved diplomacy, backed by a vocal army

Representative image. AFP

India’s rising China challenge is now being more openly acknowledged by our armed forces in public. They seem to have acquired more freedom to express themselves on politically sensitive security issues. Our retired military figures have been speaking and writing on such issues freely, but serving top brass have been traditionally publicly discreet on such matters.

The earlier practice of serving military chiefs confining themselves essentially to bread and butter defence and service issues related to equipment, procurement, organisation, manpower, deployments, capacity gaps, modernisation etc., and staying clear of issues with foreign policy sensitivities is being redefined. The armed forces have always complained about not being consulted adequately, much less institutionally, on the strategic national security challenges confronting India.

Their other longstanding grouse has been that India has ignored the importance of military diplomacy as an adjunct to the conduct of foreign policy, unlike in the case of other major powers, especially the US. It is true that the military represents hard power and used with discernment it can give teeth to diplomacy. Our Chief of Defence Staff and service chiefs are lately frequently speaking in various fora on a range of challenges facing India that straddle defence and foreign policy. This is particularly true of our challenges from China and Pakistan.

CDS RAWAT’S PLAIN TALK ON CHINA THREAT

General Rawat, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), has been particularly outspoken on the national security challenges facing India. In a recent public lecture he called China’s ambitions and aspirations to global power an “omnipresent danger” to regional strategic instability and carrying the potential of “threatening India’s territorial integrity and strategic importance”. He noted that China was making huge inroads into South Asia and the Indian Ocean region to strengthen its position as an emerging global power.

Bangladesh and Myanmar, he said, have been the largest recipients of Chinese military aid in the recent past, which he characterised as not being in India’s national interest as these were attempts to encircle us. China had made significant investments in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives to gain a strategic foothold in the region, he added. China’s supply of military hardware to Pakistan and supporting it in international fora was described by him as an anti-India nexus. He believes Pakistan’s continued sponsoring of cross-border terrorism, a vicious anti-India rhetoric on social media, and efforts to create social disharmony within India, makes the trust gap between India and that country “unbridgeable”.

The CDS has been highlighting China’s technological advances in the cyber and space domains as the most worrisome external security challenge, as beyond the military, it includes critical infrastructure as well. For him, procuring advanced surveillance systems that can help India keep an eye on its land borders and oceans is the topmost priority of the armed forces right now. He foresees a durable confrontation with China, as he views the recent incidents on the northern borders along with aggressive posturing remaining a cornerstone of China’s expansionist foreign policy about which India has to be wary.

Without mincing words he has spoken of geo-strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific, including a race for strategic bases in the Indian Ocean region and increasing militarisation of the Belt and Road outposts in the region. This is plain talk which the Chinese would have noted carefully, as we too would have noted equally carefully if the PLA chief had given his assessment publicly on the impact of India’s policies on China’s regional strategic interests.

INDIA’S EVOLVED STRATEGY

General Rawat’s assessment of China’s regional threat to India has been commonplace in think tank circles for years. After the Doklam stand-off and the much more serious Chinese military moves in Ladakh which in a breakdown of border protocols resulted in actual loss of lives, the threat from China is being felt by the country much more palpably than in recent times.

Our policy toward China since 1988 has essentially failed. The peace and tranquility agreements, the confidence building measures, several additional border management protocols to prevent any actual clash, a Special Representatives mechanism to resolve the border issue politically, the agreement on parameters and guidelines for a border settlement, allowing bilateral trade ties to grow without making them hostage to border differences, exchange of state visits, numerous bilateral meetings, informal summits—all of this has not only not worked for betterment and stability of our ties, our relations today have deteriorated sharply and the distrust of China has become deeper.

The failed latest round (13th) of military talks points to a hardening of China’s position. The statements issued on both sides, unlike after the previous rounds, not only show an impasse, but also a readiness on both sides to publicly blame each other. This was unusual in the light of a studied optimistic posture maintained after the previous rounds. The prospect of forces on both sides continuing to be deployed at icy heights in Ladakh during the coming winter is now a reality.

The hardening of China’s posture is reflected in setting up additional infrastructure by China for the winter deployment of its forces in Ladakh, the dual purpose border villages set up close to the LAC in the eastern sector and the new border law passed by China to protect its territorial integrity. China has also begun mounting pressure on the eastern front with additional infrastructural activity and reported intrusions (in the central Barahoti sector as well), with India, in turn, increasing its troop and weapon deployments such as the M777 ultra-light howitzers and the 155 mm FH 77 BO2 (Bofors) guns.

The CDS’s bluntness contrasts with a firm but much more diplomatic posture adopted by the External Affairs Minister and studied reticence at the Prime Minister’s level on the China challenge. The strategy seems to be to maintain diplomatic pressure on China, avoid involving directly the highest political authority in the unfolding situation in order to maintain political manoeuvrability at that level, but let the military spell out the reality of the China threat.

It is a good strategy, in that the China challenge is not being glossed over at the military level while keeping the window open at the bilateral political level and preserving the diplomatic suppleness needed for our participation in forums such as BRICS, the SCO, even the RIC, where China is present and is an ostensible partner, even as we strengthen ties with the US, deepen our Quad engagement, pursue maritime security within the framework of the Indo-Pacific based on adherence to international law and respect for sovereignty.

The author is Former Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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